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Frank Marshall is one of the most artistically and commercially successful producers in Hollywood history. For 53 years, he has helped to realize the visions of filmmakers including Peter Bogdanovich, Walter Hill, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, M. Night Shyamalan, David Fincher, Paul Greengrass and, most famously, Steven Spielberg, with whom he has collaborated on and off for 40 years. And with producing credits including The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, E.T., The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Sixth Sense, Seabiscuit, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, all five installments of the Indiana Jones franchise, all three installments of the Back to the Future franchise, three installments of the Jurassic World franchise and all five installments of the Bourne franchise, it’s little surprise that his films have grossed more than $6.1 billion at box offices in North America alone; that he has garnered five best picture Oscar nominations; and that he and Kathleen Kennedy, his wife of 35 years and frequent collaborator, were the recipients of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ highest honor for a producer, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, in 2018.
During a recent episode of THR’s Awards Chatter podcast, the 74-year-old reflected on his producing career, and his occasional forays into directing with projects like 1990’s Arachnophobia, 1993’s Alive, 1995’s Congo, 2006’s Eight Below and, most recently, the acclaimed 2020 HBO documentary The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, which is nominated for six Emmys, including outstanding documentary/nonfiction special and outstanding directing for a documentary/ nonfiction program.
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You can listen to the episode here. Highlights — lightly edited for clarity/brevity — appear lower on the page.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Jennifer Lawrence, Snoop Dogg, Julia Roberts, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Kevin Hart, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Cate Blanchett, Jimmy Fallon, Renee Zellweger, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Kerry Washington, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Ken Burns, Jodie Foster, Conan O’Brien, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Zendaya, Will Ferrell, Glenn Close, Michael B. Jordan, Jessica Chastain, Jay Leno, Saoirse Ronan, Billy Porter, Brie Larson, Kevin Feige and Tina Fey.
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Where were you born and raised? And what did your folks do for a living?
I was born in Glendale, California, and raised out in the San Fernando Valley until we moved to Newport Beach — I went to high school in Newport. My dad was a composer-arranger who played jazz guitar — he was under contract at Capitol Records — and my mom played piano, so there was a lot of music in our house as I was growing up.
Eventually you went off to UCLA and began studying things unrelated to film.
I had no idea what I wanted to do when I went to UCLA. I did a semester in engineering, and then I ended up in political science. But along the way, I took a couple of classes in theater arts, and one of them was taught by a wonderful professor who had written a book on the history of movies and showed us great old movies. And then I met Peter Bogdanovich at a party, and the rest is history.
This was at a birthday party for John Ford’s daughter, of all places?
My dad was in the Army with an actor named Ken Curtis, who was a part of The Sons of the Pioneers, Mr. Ford’s go-to musical group — they’re in almost every one of his movies. Ken was married to Barbara Ford, John Ford’s daughter, who was an editor, and they lived out in Toluca Lake when I was growing up, and they had a pool, so we would always go over to their house to swim in the summer when it was really hot because nobody had air-conditioning. I stayed friends with them my whole life. When I went to UCLA, Mr. Ford lived on Copa de Oro [Road], just off Sunset, and I left my little motor scooter in his garage every summer. One Christmas, I think it was 1966, my dad said, “Hey, there’s a birthday party for Barbara. You’re right there, we’ll come up, we’ll see each other and there’ll be a lot of really famous actors and actresses there.” I said, “Cool, I’ll go.” So I went to this party, and sure enough there was Ward Bond, John Wayne, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey Jr. and of course Ken. It was Barbara’s birthday, and there was her dad, John Ford. I had just taken that movie class, so I’d seen a lot of his movies, and it was incredibly intimidating to be there. And then down the stairs came this cute girl with a pixie haircut who said, “Isn’t it great how many wonderful actors are here?” And I said, “Yeah.” I was proud of the fact that I knew Mr. Ford’s movies and I could really actually talk about them because I had just taken this class, so I did, and she said to me, “You love movies?” And I said, “Oh, I love movies.” She said, “Well, come on in, you need to meet my husband.” And I said, “Oh, OK.” What I wanted to say was, “I don’t want to meet your husband, I want to meet you!” But that was Polly Platt, who turned out to be my mentor and great friend, and she took me in to meet [her husband] Peter. They were there doing a documentary on Ford, but Peter had also just met Roger Corman, and Roger asked him to shoot some second unit on The Wild Angels, after which Peter was hoping to direct his first movie. I said, “Look, I love working on theatrical productions — I’ve been in a little theater group — and if you make this movie, give me a call.” Sure enough, three months later, I got a call. Peter and Polly had moved from New York to Saticoy Avenue out in the Valley, and he said, “We’re going to make this movie. Roger gave us the money and we wrote the script. Do you want to work on it?” I said, “Sure, what do you want me to do?” And he said, “I don’t know. I’ve never made a movie before. Just come over.” That was the start. That’s when I really fell in love with making movies.
You received different credits on each of Peter’s early films, including that one, 1968’s Targets, as well as 1971’s The Last Picture Show, 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? and 1973’s Paper Moon.
I was producing without even knowing it. My view now of what a producer does is he or she helps the director get his or her vision up on the screen. When I worked on Targets, what- ever needed to be done, I did, whether it was shooting some of it, I acted in it, I built some of the set dressing, I built some of the sets, I found things, I made sandwiches, I watered the lawn, I rented cars — anything to keep the movie going. I just loved being on the set. That’s where the action was, that’s where things happen, that’s where it’s fun.
Your hustle really impressed a visitor to the set of Peter’s 1974 film Daisy Miller…
We went off to make Daisy Miller in Rome, and that’s where I met a young filmmaker who was touring Europe because his TV movie, which was called Duel, was being released as a feature in Europe — and that was Steven Spielberg. His publicity guy knew me, called me and said, “Hey, I’ve got this young filmmaker, he’s getting a little homesick and he’d like to see some film people.” So we had him for lunch at this little studio in downtown Rome called Safa Palatino. Every lunch we had a long table where the cast and a bunch of the crew would gather. And so there was Steven sitting next to our editor, Verna Fields; there were our actors, Barry Brown and Cybill Shepherd; and there was Peter. I wasn’t there at the start of this lunch, but I came in after they were all seated and I was introduced to Steven, had two bites of my pasta standing up, went to Peter to ask him a question and then said, “Sorry, I’ve got to go back to the set,” and left and went back to the stage. Verna later told me that Steven said to her, “That’s the kind of guy I need — a guy who’s more interested in the next shot than lunch.”
I’m sure that you and Steven both would have had wonderful careers even if you’d never had that brief encounter, but you just think about how different things might’ve been, right?
Exactly. And there’s another lesson in that, which is always do your best because you never know who’s looking — always make the best coffee, collate the pages, do your best. It took five years, but five years later, Steven was sitting on the beach with George Lucas in Hawaii and they were talking about Raiders of the Lost Ark. George said, “Well, who do you want to produce it?” And Steven said, “Let’s see if we can find that guy, Frank Marshall.”
When you and Steven connected, what was your sense of what he was looking for in a producer?
Steven had just come off of 1941, and I think that he had been so beaten up by the studio that he wanted someone to protect him and be on his side from the production side. And we got along great because I was all about solving problems. Now I’m involved in all the phases of production, but back then, it was really about, “I’m the guy who’s going to help you get the movie made the way you want it to be made, and I’ll take care of the studio.”
Around this time, you met your future wife, who at the time was Steven’s assistant.
Steven liked to design action sequences with actual models — now we do it with pre-vis and stuff — and he said, “Do you know anybody who can make me some models?” Well, I had grown up making Revell models out in the Valley with my dad, and I said, “Yeah.” I turned to Kathy and said, “Can you get some Revell trucks, German trucks, tanks and motorcycles?” She said, “Yeah.” And she said, “I love making models, too.” And I said, “You do?” And she said, “Yeah.” So we spent the weekend together putting together these models, and that was the start. We fell in love. After Raiders, Steven asked Kathy to produce E.T. and me to produce Poltergeist. Meanwhile, we kept our relationship under the radar. When the two movies came out and did so well, Steven said to us, “Why don’t we form a company?” And we said, “Well, we don’t know what that means, but sure, let’s do more movies together.” And that’s how Amblin started. And of course, we were just together making these movies, and then Kathy and I said, “Let’s get married, too.”
For many years before Schindler’s List, the Academy sort of snubbed Steven. You produced The Color Purple, which got 11 Oscar nominations, including best picture but not best director — just like Jaws a decade earlier — and then lost all 11, tying a record. And you also produced Empire of the Sun, which went 0-for-6. What do you think that was about? Was there jealousy of Steven?
I do think there was jealousy that he could do these popcorn movies and then do something serious. When you look at The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, they’re amazingly shot and acted and deserved all the nominations. But I just don’t think that people were able to accept the fact that Steven could do everything. So we got nominated, but we didn’t win any.
After a decade with Amblin, you and Kathy left to form The Kennedy/Marshall Co. Why, when you were having so much success with Steven, did you guys decide to go it alone?
It was really for a couple of reasons. One was that we had gotten married in 1987, and we had talked about making our own movies — I was starting to direct. Also, Amblin had gotten so big by then that we were spending more time in the office than we were making movies. It was an incredibly tough decision, but Steven was very gracious about it — and, as you know, we’re still making movies together.
In 2012, Kathy accepted an offer to run LucasFilm, so you’ve been holding down The Kennedy/Marshall Co. fort since then. In that time, you’ve had great commercial success, largely with sequels. Is that reflective of the business today — that it’s just harder to make non-sequels, remakes or adaptations of existing IP — or just the type of movie that you personally gravitate toward now?
Well, it’s a little bit of both. Kathy was doing the Jurassic Parks, and then when she took over LucasFilm she couldn’t do that anymore, so she lateraled it to me, and it was easy to step in with Steven and the studio, so that’s how that happened. And, certainly, I want to continue with the Bourne movies, as well. But we’re still looking at some new stories that haven’t been told before.
The Bee Gees doc is the first film you’ve directed in 14 years. How did it come about?
I’ve been producing docs for a little over 10 years, going back to an ESPN 30 for 30, and both The Armstrong Lie and Sinatra: All or Nothing at All with Alex Gibney. What I love about them is you don’t know what you’re going to do, as opposed to a narrative movie when you know exactly what you’re going to do every day — you’ve got a script, you’ve got a schedule, you know every hour what you’re shooting. With a doc, it’s freedom, it’s constant discovery, it’s trying this, it’s trying that, and a lot of it is really made in the cutting room. I love the post process. The Bee Gees project started at Capitol Records. I was up on the top of the building, which had just been refurbished, and I was telling the new CEO, Steve Barnett, how I would drive with my dad down the Hollywood Freeway and he’d say, “There’s the building I’m going to work in, and guess what it looks like?” I said, “I don’t know.” And he said, “It’s a stack of 45 records.” And sure enough, if you look at it, that’s what it is. We were talking about how the resurgence of music docs was partly because the record companies were looking for ways to reinvigorate catalogs, and Steve said, “I just bought the Bee Gees.” I said, “I love the Bee Gees’ music! How about them?” And he said, “Well, I’ve got a five-year plan, and in the plan is a documentary. Barry [Gibb, the group’s sole surviving member] is coming out to L.A. in a couple of weeks because they’re doing a Grammys tribute to him, so why don’t I bring him over here and you’ll meet and you guys can talk about it?” So I came back two weeks later, I met Barry, and we really hit it off. And that started this wonderful journey that went on for four years.
How did you decide what to focus on and what not to?
What you’ve got to do is look for the heart of the story, and for me the heart of the story was family and songwriting. Yes, there’s also the music and the stardom and all that, but I was really interested in the genesis and how they worked together and sang together and wrote their songs. I believe they stayed together and kept coming back together and overcoming these obstacles because they were a family and had great, supportive parents. That was the heart of the story for me, so we wove things around that. And I started discovering things like how Saturday Night Fever came together and how they created the drum loop, and those are the golden nuggets that are so wonderful when you’re making a documentary — the things you discover, and then you make a right turn.
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